Candidates always want to run against a weak opponent. But this election cycle, Democrats are taking that wish to a different level. They are actually running ads in support of extremist Republican candidates in hopes of bolstering their chances of beating more moderate candidates in the GOP primary.
On paper, it’s a logical strategy. It’s also a very risky one that even some Democrats are condemning.
The most recent example was in Maryland, where Republicans nominated Dan Cox. Democrats had set aside $1.2 million for ads on his behalf, more than Cox himself did. Cox chartered buses to the Trump rally on January 6 and called Mike Pence a “traitor” that day for refusing to overturn the election results. The departing governor, Larry Hogan, who is a Republican, called Cox “a QAnon whack job.”
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Democrats have promoted candidates of a similar caliber elsewhere. Darren Bailey emerged from the GOP primary as the party’s choice for governor in Illinois, thanks to a nice boost from Democrats looking to re-elect incumbent J.B. Pritzker. They ran ads declaring Bailey “too conservative,” which in the GOP primary is the equivalent of telling people to rush out to vote for Bailey right then and there.
Bailey is a farmer whose first action as a state legislator was a bill to remove Chicago from the state. He was endorsed by Trump and he’s rabidly anti-LGBTQ. He’s said that teaching children about LGBTQ history is “sexualizing kids” and that transgender rights is “the moral rot that is destroying society.”
Then there’s Pennsylvania.
The GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, is a Christian nationalist who actually breached the barricades at the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection. The eventual Democratic nominee, Josh Shapiro, actually ran ads that tied Mastriano closely to Donald Trump, knowing full well that the ads would resonate with the MAGA base. Shapiro is obviously betting on Mastriano being so extreme that he will prompt Democrats to turn out in droves and scare suburban Republicans to vote Democratic.
All told, Democrats have spent $20 million on far-right Republicans in hopes of facing off against them in the fall. Not all of the bets have paid off. But a lot – perhaps too many-have.
Democrats may think that they are following a crafty political strategy to gain an advantage in November. It worked before. Democrats were able to win a number of elections in 2012 that they hadn’t counted on because the GOP nominees were so out there.
But that was 2012. The stakes are considerably higher now. It’s not just a matter of risking the Republican winning. It’s the idea of giving that candidate a platform to spread destructive, often anti-democratic ideas for months. Those lies are increasingly mainstreamed into the Republican party, and the Democrats are facilitating that process.
At least some Democrats see the strategy as disastrous.
“I think it’s very dangerous and potentially very risky to elevate people who are hostile to democracy,” Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist told the Washington Post. “Either this is a crisis moment or it isn’t. And if it is — which it is — you don’t play cute in a crisis.”
Wolfson highlights the main problem. Democrats are treating the candidates they are helping as if they are just run-of-the-mill crackpots. They are anything but. Democrats are giving thousands of voters the chance to vote for Trumpism or Christian nationalism. That shouldn’t even be on the ballot. The idea is to squash that threat to democracy–not fund it because it makes you look better at the ballot.
Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the upcoming primary in Michigan, where Democrats have spent $425,000 to unseat Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump, by running ads for John Gibbs. Gibbs, a former Trump official, once defending a anti-Semitic troll on Twitter and said the 2020 election had “mathematically impossible” anomalies.
“No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), who sits on the January 6 Congressional committee, told Politico. “Many of us are facing death threats over our efforts to tell the truth about Jan. 6. To have people boosting candidates telling the very kinds of lies that caused Jan. 6 and continues to put our democracy in danger, is just mind-blowing,”
Meijer is none too pleased either, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy. “I’m sick and tired of hearing the sanctimonious bullshit about the Democrats being the pro-democracy party,” he said.
Of course, Democrats are only the pro-democracy party if they win. If they don’t, they will have been the pro-Christian nationalist party. It’s a bet the Democratic leadership is making at the risk of its principles and of democracy itself.